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John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum — 6/10

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 — PARABELLUM (2019, Chad Stahelski)

Magic can be subdivided into different kinds. Guys like David Copperfield and Criss Angel and shit, they’re illusionists. People who can read minds are mentalists. A guy who saws a woman in half is doing “big box” magic (Penn & Teller do a lot of creative stuff with big box magic), and then you’ve got the guys like Shin Lim, who come up to just a few inches away from your face, take out a deck of cards, and practice such insane sleight-of-hand that you question your own eyes — that’s close-up magic. To make an analogy to action movies, FURY ROAD is big box, AVENGERS is illusion, and JOHN WICK is close-up magic. It earns its money with hand-to-hand combat, well-staged fights, practical stunts, and bloody, gory kills that can make you jump out of your chair.

For the first half hour or so of PARABELLUM, there’s about half a dozen of those moments. Wick fights a giant with a library book, gets in a knife fight with way too many bad guys in an antique weapons shop, uses a horse to kick away his foes, and has to fight off his enemies while riding full speed on a motorcycle. It’s relentless — until it relents. And when it relents for dialogue scenes, you realize it’s crawling way too far up the crevice of its own mythology, answering questions nobody ever asked. Did you care if Wick got his name from his actual Belarusian last name of Jonovich? Do you need to know about tickets, coins, passes, rosaries, consecration, and excommunication? If not, tough shit, this movie is going to explain the hell out of it.

Plot-wise, it’s simpler and more boiled down than Chapter 2 — but in paring down the story, it also fails to give Wick any motivation beyond mere survival. In the first film he had only revenge on his mind, but revenge is more fun to get behind. In the second film he had twisted loyalties and goals to achieve. Here, it’s just ‘can he survive,’ and that doesn’t give Reeves as much to do in the acting department — though he still manages to be as cool, physically, as any action star alive. Unfortunately. Halle Berry is also in the movie, and she’s quite bad. Her big action scene in Morocco is beautifully staged (and those dogs are awesome) but it’s also a lot of who-cares. Angelica Huston does more with her 3 minutes on screen than Berry does with her 23.

Then the movie keeps adding new faces and new villains and gives Wick more faceless henchman to dispatch. As impressive as it looks (and the production designer has a field day), it doesn’t really snap because the mythology just isn’t that interesting. To give you an example of just how repetitive it is, it climaxes with a scene similar to the ENTER THE DRAGON-inspired Hall of Mirrors from Chapter 2, but this time it’s a Hall of Breakaway Glass Cases. About 20 of them, and Wick gets thrown into every single one — each time it explodes with loud foley effects, doing no discernible damage to Wick’s body, and just keeps going. By the 14th glass case that’s destroyed, we’ve stopped wanting to see this magic trick again. I know where the ace is.

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Long Shot — 7/10

LONG SHOT (2019, Jonathan Levine)

They’re not necessarily “intangibles,” but the elements that make this a great deal better than your average studio rom-com might be overlooked. First of all, there’s the visual style Levine brings — one that he keeps building on from each feature to the next: there’s thought to lighting and camera placement that isn’t exactly Edgar Wright-level directing but meaningful nonetheless. Kinetic camera movement when the story calls for it, depth to a lot of the frames, and an appealing color palette. One touch I love in particular is the first time Rogen walks up to Theron — his eyeglasses reflect the string of gaudy lights at the fancy party they’re at, and become more prominent the closer he gets to the object of his affection. There are literally stars in his eyes when he looks at her.

Also, the rhythms of this deserve some love. Comedy obviously depends a lot on timing, and probably the reason I was laughing so hard so often here is rhythm. Note editor Evan Henke’s previous credits (OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY, THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY, THE INTERVIEW, EASTBOUND & DOWN) and they all crackle with jokes that land precisely due to timing. One I’m thinking of here is after a serious of hilarious juxtapositions of powerful female politicians with ugly schlubs (Princess Di and Guy Fieri, Kate Middleton and Danny DeVito, J-Law and a potato in a teal windbreaker, etc.), Levine and Henke let just enough running time lapse before they throw in one more corker (Angela Merkel and Adam Duritz!) — complete with the red X — that goes off screen as quick as it came on and leaves you gasping for breath. I could list dozens more jokes that work like that, but you need to see for yourself if you haven’t already.

One element that definitely won’t get overlooked, however, is Theron’s performance. Proving once again that there’s nothing she can’t do, pivoting sharply from FURY ROAD to ATOMIC BLONDE to TULLY to this, Theron melds physical comedy with weighty emotion to generate a three-dimensional heroine that doesn’t rely on anyone else to succeed. Just watch the way she grips the handlebars outside the situation room when she’s stumbling on molly to handle a crisis. What Theron knows better than most actors is that when your character is high, your motivation is to look sober. She knows when to overplay and when to underplay, and every aspect of this performance is a joy to watch.

When the movie falters, it’s because the pizza dough can’t quite match the sauce and toppings. Levine tries too hard to appeal to all the quadrants, forcing Jackson (giving a characteristically strong supporting comedic performance) to be a Republican and stump for “hearing out both sides.” It veers way too far into fantasy land — giving us an America where a woman with scandals like these could be successful (we wish, we wish). I like how the script was retrofitted to encapsulate Trump times (Andy Serkis as a disgusting offspring of Steve Bannon and Ailes/Murdoch; Bob Odenkirk as a hilariously image-obsessed “acting president,” etc.) but as real as the romance may be, the vision of politics here is more absurd than real life and that’s hard to do. At least with THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, Aaron Sorkin and Rob Reiner’s fantasy was old-fashioned and wishful thinking, but it got the bones right and took policy seriously. This takes the relationship seriously and treats the subject matter as a riff. Still, my face was so wet from laughter tears that maybe I’m spending too much time on the drawbacks. This movie is a riot.

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Shadow — 8/10

SHADOW (2019, Zhang Yimou)

A juicy melodrama with Shakespearean gravity, this isn’t unfamiliar ground for an aging master with three decades of experience behind him. Comfortable with pseudo-fantasy elements in historical war movies (in everything from HERO to THE GREAT WALL), Zhang is also likely engaging in some political commentary that a doltish American mind like mine is incapable of penetrating. But ignorance of the context is barely an impediment to appreciating everything else that works here — characteristically gorgeous compositions, a luscious, nearly all-grey color palette, forceful camerawork from Zhang’s longtime DP Zhao Xiaoding (Oscar nominee for HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS), and two soulfully committed performances from real-life married couple Deng Chao and Sun Li.

Deng’s predicament is reminiscent of Kurosawa’s KAGEMUSHA, as he plays a shadow for the dying military commander of a tenuous kingdom led by a foolish, hubristic king. Fans will also catch whiffs of Wong’s THE GRANDMASTER and Woo’s RED CLIFF in these proceedings, but what Zhang brings to the table is his peerless storytelling — the first hour is a gripping chamber drama set mostly in the Pei palace, before the much-discussed and rehearsed duel launches an action-packed back half. Rather than tossing some swordplay and arrow-shooting as chum to the masses, Zhang makes sure all of his action is motivated by the story: the duel, the Princess’s self-actualization, the siege on Jing, and the final reckoning for our protagonists. It’s all a fatalistic consequence of a plot that concerns itself with existential questions — is our identity forged by what we do or where we come from? Is an artist (represented here both by the furious zither-strumming and the balletic martial arts) born or trained, and can you fake it? Finally, do we love each other because of history, or can we fall in love by going through the motions of another?

Just because the action isn’t stylistic for style’s sake, that doesn’t mean it isn’t fucking bonkers cool. The locations and choreography would often be just enough, but Zhang throws in one of the weirdest weapons I’ve ever seen: bladed umbrellas that serve a duel role as gun and shield. Add to that the overhead shots of yin-yangs (a consistent metaphor made explicit by discussions of masculine vs. feminine), the alluring secret passage behind the palace walls, the voyeuristic stone holes, the banners and daggers and masks and robes that mark a distinct place and time, and you’ve got an exceptional entry to the Chinese period piece that reminds us the Fifth Generation isn’t ready to pack it in just yet.

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Avengers: Endgame — 7/10

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (Corporate Overlords, 2019)

Obligatory spoiler warning: this will have them.

Ever accidentally answer your phone when a random number pops up, and it takes you a while to figure out if the voice on the other end is a person or a robot? As technology progresses to the point where the organic and synthetic merge, where the line blurs between what’s human and what’s machine, we enter an age of undefined identity — a smeared grab-bag of things that bounce around in our consciousness to distract us from the existential horror that everything dies, nothing matters, and there is no purpose or reason for any of it. People are cyborgs, countries are companies, and money is authority. And what are movies, TV shows, or comic books? Is there a difference? Is ENDGAME the series finale of a 3-season fan fellatio where every 6-8 episodes it rinsed and repeated its digital tornado of gravity-defying light-show stunts and snarky gags? If ENDGAME is a movie, an Airbus A380 is a bicycle.

Most of the 21 episodes that preceded it were mediocre, monotonous just-okay-factories. Enough effort went in to prevent all-out disaster, but little artistry went into creating something profound. There’s not even much point in critically analyzing them; they’re post-analysis — they’re self-reflexive arguments for their own fan appreciation. But now that the story has been finalized to some degree (they’d never fully kill the golden goose), that horizon has yielded a few real benefits. Structurally, this has a shape: although the middle hour (collecting the stones) drags, it’s its own act. The first hour, getting the band back together, is full of solid laughs. The third act does contain the obligatory CG noise casserole (set in a bizarre green screen non-world of ill-defined terrain and murky-clouded skies) but it also takes death seriously, for a change. While Bruce and Mohawkeye (seriously, Renner’s lost-a-bet haircut must be seen to be believed) mourn Natasha, everyone mourns Tony with the gravity of a war’s real cost.

The pace is slow enough to register shot compositions and actor’s performances. For the first time, I can see a thespian garner acclaim for work in Marvel — Robert Downey Jr. reminds us that he used to be great before he became a hero. And Paul Rudd and Chris Hemsworth understand comic timing and that shouldn’t be taken for granted. There doesn’t need to be much action in this movie — it has maybe the least amount per minute of screen time of any other Marvel I can think of, because it does wrestle with character, even if it forgets that they’re also comic book superheroes (the failure to let Natasha’s Black Widow do anything remotely manipulative or devious is a criminal sin, and most of the other superheroes are just warriors without unique powers — beyond maybe Ant-Man and Hulk).

Also, as a piece of titanic pop culture destined to cement its place in box office history, it knows that its wokeness will be discussed regardless. So it forces a scene where every female hero in the series’ history lands together on screen without motivation or warning, to band together in battle. It also lets the old white guard pass its gifts on to minorities — Thor passes the Kingdom of Asgard off to Tessa Thompson, while Captain America hands his shield over to Anthony Mackie. Blink and you’ll miss the flash frame of Kevin Feige holding a “Diversity! Inclusivity!” sign above Stan Lee’s head. These transparent deferments to the current climate are admirable but clumsy, yet perhaps the most that a gargantuan franchise like this can afford. All around the world, people are seeing this thing, so it isn’t really just a movie, for better or worse. You can point out that the script doesn’t allow for narrative information to be communicated without dialogue; that the messages don’t challenge or confront us; that the frames rarely look as kinetic and artistic as a comic book panel, despite its influences. But what’s the point? The Russos are not De Palma. They shepherded untold amounts of traffic and scheduling, they gave a couple of their COMMUNITY pals some cameos (Ben and Shirley show up, but what, Abed was too busy?), and they allowed global audiences to forget for three hours the bottomless pit of despair that is the real world. That isn’t heroic, but it doesn’t happen every day.

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Her Smell — 9/10

HER SMELL (2019, Alex Ross Perry)

At one point in the second act, Elisabeth Moss turns towards her prey and glares, eyes hunting, while she stalks forward almost licking her lips with anticipation of the meat she’s about to devour. It’s such an effective prowl that when Eric Stoltz compares her, ten minutes later, to a lioness, it comes off as redundant.

Moss’s performance is everything to this movie — it’s a huge, chewy, brave, show-stopping star turn that Perry asks a lot of. He gets it. Not only is Moss pretty much the center of every scene; she also has to carry the burden of being a believable rock star with such gravitational force that lamb after lamb is sucked into her orbit, despite every wicked barb unleashed from her filthy gob doing its best to repel. She gets a lot of clever one-liners and handles them with grace, but even the clangers of dialogue that pop up every once in a while (“suckling at the teats of my success!”) are no obstacle for her. It might be the most ferocious acting I’ve seen on screen since David Thewlis in NAKED, and those who know me will realize that’s about as high as praise gets.

Structurally, this is surprising and impressive — Perry breaks it up into five clean, real-time acts that last 20-30 minutes each. If you don’t know this going in, the first one is a disorienting, seemingly never-ending backstage nightmare. Finally when act two begins in the recording studio, you almost expect its half-hour barrage. The third sequence can only go downhill from there and ends in a literal curtain close. All three of these acts are shot with a swirling camera in constant close-up, almost nauseating with restlessness and colored like the cracking old paint of a stale punk club, lit with fluorescent-sucking, low-ceiling drabness. It’s form following content, an off-putting visual style wrestling with its horrifying protagonist. But it all pays off with act four, the beginning of possible redemption, where Perry locks his camera down with placid contentment, bathing Moss with backlit sun and even providing the first (and only) exterior shot of the entire movie. It’s here when things slow down enough to let Moss play a piano solo to her daughter, stripping Bryan Adams’s “Heaven” down to an aching confession, desperation to connect dripping off the screen. Scene of the year so far, I think.

And part of what makes this towering movie so great is its refusal to send big messages — it has an addiction/rock bottom/redemption plotline we’ve seen far too often, complete with the foreshadowings of death and a cute little girl to jerk tears. But it never uses those clichés as a shortcut to proselytize. This isn’t a soapbox about awful people. It’s a depiction of a tortured artist that doesn’t pull punches or manipulate sympathies. It shows us a period of the 1990s when pop-punk girl bands like Elastica, Veruca Salt, and L7 could be on the cover of Rolling Stone, because guitars, bass, and drums still sold out clubs. And it reveals just how much human beings are always performing, whether a camera is there or not. Thank goodness Perry and DP Sean Price Williams brought their A-game camerawork to this one, to capture Elisabeth Moss becoming a monstrous star, playing a monster who used to be a star, always performing.

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Under the Silver Lake — 8/10

UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (2019, David Robert Mitchell)

An intoxicating oxymoron foisted upon an unsuspecting audience, this is both a hilarious satire and a dark, rotten gaze into an existential void; it’s both a loving ode to cinema’s glorious past and a rebuke to the nerds who obsess over the details of those movies (and pop songs alike). It’s tender yet violent, superficially shocking yet profoundly intelligent, and manages to be an all-out gas to watch — sparkling entertainment that is increasingly rare among like-minded indie auteurs so desperate for relevance they forget how to dazzle.

Central to the success of this high-wire act is Garfield’s layered performance: physically comic, faintly sinister, oblivious, rude, relatable, and pathetic all at once. He’s always communicating to the audience even when his character takes no action, like a Camusian antihero whose inner monologue is made visual by Mitchell’s critical gaze. And the tapestry over which Garfield lingers is modern-day Los Angeles, a city memorialized in dozens of the hard-boiled noirs this movie tips its hat to, yet reminding us this is Hollywood itself — a place where hipsters dine on tabletop gravestones of former movie stars, and failed actors turn tricks to pay the bills. Driving-and-following sequences are shot and cut (and scored) with direct fidelity to Hitchcock, and the gimmick is that if you catch the reference you’re the butt of the joke. Garfield is also the anti-Tom Cruise in a daylight EYES WIDE SHUT, having dangerous near-sexual encounters with every woman he meets, but rather than wearing a tuxedo and flashing a medical badge, he’s wearing pajamas to a party and slurping milk from inside a corner market fridge.

If Mitchell really wanted to make the point that ROOM 237-style conspiracy theorists are insane losers, then it doesn’t really make sense to have Garfield’s pursuits yield results — that said, there’s some question over just how reliable his experiences are; every loose end that isn’t tied up (the mask-wearing naked woman who climbs out of his cupboard, the songwriter incident that has no consequences, the pirate who’s never explained) is something that Garfield saw or heard about throughout his quest and could just be dreaming of later on. And whether these things happen or they don’t, it’s still true that he’s an aimless young man searching for a pattern in a meaningless void of a world — surrounded by a populace obsessed with pop culture, paranoid over privacy and security, burdened by financial concerns, and largely focused on work. The less things make sense in this wild march towards a reckoning, the more they ring true.

By the way — I just barely resisted bumping this up to a 9 thanks to two of the best tracks off R.E.M.’s Monster hitting the soundtrack at significant times. And one of them results in Mitchell’s cheekiest Easter egg: when Garfield impulsively dances to “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” it’s hard not to think of the story of its title, which brings me to quote this lede from the New York Times circa 1997:

Over the course of a decade, it evolved from an incomprehensible utterance during a quizzical crime to the possible measure of a news anchor's unraveling to a kernel of kitschy folklore, memorialized as the title of a popular hit by the rock band R.E.M.
''Kenneth, what is the frequency?'' became more than just the question that Dan Rather, the CBS news anchor, said he was asked during an attack in 1986 that some detractors unfairly dismissed as apocryphal. It became a nonsensical oddity and an unsolved mystery: Who said it, and why, and what ever happened to him?

And sorry, Jeremy Bobb, I won’t be persuaded that Michael Stipe didn’t write that one himself.


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High Life — 5/10

HIGH LIFE (2019, Claire Denis)

Or, Claire Denis’s Blue Material.

It’s hard to imagine a more pretentious version of a movie about a dozen horny death-row inmates and one mad scientist hurtling in a giant lego piece through the cosmos towards the oblivion of a black hole. But then again, this is Claire Denis — she is old, seasoned, and will never make a movie that isn’t overflowing with big concerns about humanity. However, when Juliette Binoche is speed-walking down a spaceship corridor holding Robert Pattinson’s joy juice in her hand, rushing to make it to a turkey baster in time so she can knock up a sleeping girl, one’s thoughts drift not to the concepts of procreation or life amidst futile existence, but instead to the image of George Kennedy running through the rickety aluminum sets of the fake sci-fi film in Albert Brooks’s MODERN ROMANCE, with director James L. Brooks watching on worried about the foley effects of the floor.

It seems that throughout the past 70 years of film history, French directors as disparate as Bresson and Besson have injected existentialist thought into both their overreaching dramas and their genre knock-offs. Why go on living if the only end is death? What is the purpose of continuing life in the face of such universal indifference? Denis doesn’t so much answer this question as she does pose it in unique fashion, jumping around chronologically to investigate the incipience and future of the relationship between Pattinson’s character and his baby daughter. And in doing so, she turns her gaze not outward into the galaxy, where trillions of stars shine casually around this floating box, and black holes loom with matter-sucking light, but inward towards the human body — gashes and stitches in a forearm; secretions of sweat, semen, and blood; the muscles and moles of a naked back; Rapunzel-length hair; the mocking of a voice and the squeals of an infant. Denis does not evaluate or opine on any of these — she presents them coldly and dispassionately, and tells her story the way she wants to tell it. Luckily for us, her tone and pace and compositions are so hypnotic that this is a super easy sit — I could have watched another hour of it — and it goes down smoother than both her better and worse films like TROUBLE EVERY DAY and BEAU TRAVAIL.

But Denis succeeds more when she’s lightening up, such as in her fine romance FRIDAY NIGHT. Here, she turns dour and pompous, utilizing risible dialogue, multiple rapes, a couple murders and suicides, and some animal cruelty for good measure (“What do you know about cruelty?” Pattinson asks his child). So it’s hard to argue that we aren’t supposed to be taking this movie very seriously. But then somehow Denis spends a great deal of time on the dark, solitary “fuckbox,” where people go to masturbate on something that looks like the mechanical bull at Saddle Ranch.

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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote — 6/10


The question mark after the year above indicates natural confusion — Gilliam has been trying to make this movie for about 30 years, with all kinds of peaks and valleys (Johnny Depp as Toby, John Hurt as Quixote, a documentary about its troubled production released 17 years ago, etc.). It has a copyright 2017 in its credits, a 2018 premiere date at Cannes, and finally an American theatrical release. But does stamping a year on this even matter? It’s clearly a career summary for the already-notoriously-insane Gilliam, who sees himself as both Toby and Quixote, and thus turns Toby into Quixote over the course of the epic arc.

The script does feel like it was mainly penned 20 years ago — some elements are stale and outdated, even though it’s also a somewhat faithful adaptation of Cervantes. There’s innkeepers and prostitutes, scorned lovers, dreams of giants, escaped convicts, and loads and loads of imagination. But characters like Olga Kurylenko’s Jacqui (cringe-inducing horniness) just don’t work regardless of their allusions to the text, and the result is a big, sprawling movie that is by turns breathtaking and sloppy.

By now you should know if you like Gilliam. I generally don’t. He’s rarely boring, but every movie he makes is a manic bouillabaisse of Fellini-esque-apades. Much like the grating BRAZIL, spastic TWELVE MONKEYS, or trippy FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, this thing is stuffed to the gills with clutter. Every frame looks like the production designer exploded in a microwave. The colorful costumes are amazing, the set decoration fussy and impressive, and the locations genuinely outstanding. To look at this movie on the big screen is to see something bold and unusual. But it also makes your eye dart everywhere on the screen, as it’s both compositionally ugly and often rich and striking. One frame belongs in the Louvre, another belongs in the trash can of a hoarder’s garage.

Adam Driver makes the movie cruise by, however, with a committed physical performance showing his trademark exasperation and passion. Pryce is properly funny and annoying, as Quixote is supposed to be. The two of them serve as complimentary Gilliam avatars: creative and existing outside the lines, but also shrill and exhausting. And while this may be one of Gilliam’s more alluring movies overall, the fact that as a director he’s tilting at windmills anyway makes an adaptation of Quixote kind of redundant.

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Sunset — 5/10

SUNSET (2019, László Nemes)

Once again shooting exclusively in his patented follow-cam, Nemes has utilized his claustrophobic style to much different effect. With SON OF SAUL, what started off as a harrowing, nearly unwatchable exercise in cinematic torture became more understandable as it went on, despite maintaining its grip as a nightmarish descent into the Holocaust. But somehow SUNSET starts off alluring, then becomes increasingly frustrating, myopic, and self-satisfied.

Perhaps what made SON OF SAUL such a perfect match of form and content was that a singular point of view and feeling of an unbroken pursuit fits well with an amusement park ride through the hellscape of Auschwitz — that is, if your style is visceral, it feeds off built-in stakes and a story predicated on action. SUNSET takes an opposite mode: it’s a mystery, and mysteries beg to be tempting and revealing. Nemes does neither. He gives us no reason to care about Irisz or her family secrets, nor does he show much interest in the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He just dangles a few soft-focus glimpses of chaos in the back of his narrow-depth-of-field lens, instead making Michael Mann jealous with the amount of time devoted to the back of his lead’s neck and ears. As Irisz, Juli Jakab (not to be confused with the actress who plays the countess, Julia Jakubowska; I bet those call sheets were annoying) holds down the fort admirably, but is given very few notes to hit. We are only sure of what she wants when she asks so many questions, but then doesn’t do much with the info she gets anyway.

Nemes is more interested in his beautifully constructed camera movement (it’s so impressive how things and people in the scene are only revealed when Irisz’s gaze turns to them thanks to movement by someone else in the shot) than he is in conveying any sort of coherent thesis. It doesn’t matter who Kalman is, what is happening to the girls who get sold, or why this anarchist group is uprising against the royalty. All that matters is we see things through the eyes of the protagonist. And when this protagonist is so focused on muddled pursuits, we’re left adrift in the Danube.

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The Beach Bum — 7/10

THE BEACH BUM (2019, Harmony Korine)

As close to a standard entry as you’ll get into a genre like stoner comedy from Korine — which is to say not standard at all. First of all, his name is Harmony, and he writes by retreating to a houseboat in Key Largo with nothing but Taco Bell, Mountain Dew, and Cuban cigars, ODing on all of them until he gets in the zone and pumps out a fever-dream script like this. Secondly, if you’ve seen his stuff before, you won’t be surprised that this particular LEBOWSKI riff contains lots of nudity, drugs, and booze; a surprising death; a more surprising amputation; and makes this all just part of the wallpaper. For the vast majority of audiences for whom this isn’t their thing, they’re going to despise it. But I admire Korine’s commitment to this tone, and color me entertained to boot.

There’s a plot, but this is far more of a simple character study than anything. Hardly a scene goes by that doesn’t exist to further develop and observe Moondog, played to dizzying excess by McConaughey in a role he was born for — this is the most McConaughey that’s ever been McConaugheyed on screen and he laps up every last bit of scenery. But it isn’t just showy — there’s a real method to the madness. In an early wedding scene, Moondog can’t even remember his new son-in-law’s name, yet he delivers a surprisingly poetic toast. Korine wants to make sure you know that what matters to Moondog isn’t the details or even the here and now: it’s the art beyond, and the hedonistic pleasures within. He later descends fully dressed into a pool, but makes sure to keep his joint above water. This is a guy who prizes what he prizes — he can dunk himself to near drowning, he can crash a car, and he can literally and figuratively burn money… but he keeps his weed alive, he always smiles at his wife, and he knows how to write a damn poem.

There’s a limit to how much you can wring out of this. It isn’t Homer or even Keats. Moondog likes to talk about living to have fun, and keeps things calm and cool. His philosophy of sucking the marrow out of life isn’t novel, though it’s certainly fun to watch — and along with reliably neon-slick photography from Benoit Debie (fresh off CLIMAX, but reeking of SPRING BREAKERS), it’s gorgeous too. You’ve also got Zac Efron nearly stealing the entire movie with a brief turn as a Manic Pixie Dream Douchebag, the kind of guy who rocks out to Creed, has frosted hair and Venetian blind stripes shaved into his facial hair, and mugs disabled seniors. He’s good enough to make you almost forget that Jonah Hill and Martin Lawrence are also doing stellar work. But this is McConaughey’s movie, and since it spends just as much time on self-aware scenes like Moondog watching a decade-old video of himself reading poetry as it does on big plot moments, it takes a performance that’s equally self-aware, dedicated, physical, and hilarious to sell it.

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Hotel Mumbai — 7/10

HOTEL MUMBAI (2019, Anthony Maras)

When an American tourist has to be told three times he can’t order beef at a restaurant in India, it might be seen as a throwaway moment of levity at the dawn of an impending nightmare. But it’s another sly move by director and co-writer Maras to thread together the concepts of religious ignorance and unspeakable violence. The opening shot is a gorgeous backlit vista of the Arabian sea as a boatload of Islamic terrorists cruise towards Mumbai, listening on their earbuds to their Pakistani leader reiterate how great God is, and how heaven and Allah await their dutiful souls upon completion of this jihad. Maras makes no bones about it — the fundamental (and fundamentalist) backbone of this terror is religious fervor; but subsequent scenes involving human beings struggling to connect with one another show the partially trite but also inarguably truthful observation that when we find common ground, or recognize a shared humanity amongst an Other, it can quell the instinct towards hatred, fear, and brutal attack.

One of the hostages is a bigoted, rich white woman who assumes that anyone speaking Arabic is a terrorist — but while a Russian capitalist barks at her with rage, our heroic Sikh waiter (Dev Patel, engendering untold levels of sympathy and believability) approaches her with a desire to connect with a universal appeal. It would be nice if all intolerance could be healed with reason, but the facts of this story show that won’t happen any time soon. The bulk of this movie is not scenes of rose-colored hugging and learning — it’s a virtually unparalleled and lengthy recreation of many devastating hours of bloody carnage. And Maras does not shy away — he doesn’t revel in blood spatter or graphic gore like a Zahler or Timo Tjahjanto, but he takes the responsibility of depicting the senseless and ugly murders with clear eyes and realistic physics. His visuals are handheld but not Greengrass-volcanic; edits only happen when they need to, and the geography of the hotel makes sense in every scene. This is a remarkable piece of sustained action cinema, loathsome as it may be to endure.

Rather than ignoring the terrorists completely or granting them any sympathy, he makes the smart choice of revealing that these are corrupted humans: they do feel anxious before the attack. They aren’t merciless robots. They worry about their families’ financial security, and they can be swayed into mercy by their moral code as well. But they’ve been poisoned by the kind of hateful religious fanaticism that Maras knows is at the core of true evil. Similarly, the hostages and victims are not all saints. Some are dicks, but can still do nice things. Some are kind-hearted, but make mistakes. Good people do bad things and vice versa. It’s part of human nature, and as such, the loss of this humanity makes this unending nightmare of terrorism so depressing to contemplate. It happened 11 years ago, and the only reason you’re forgiven for forgetting Mumbai is that in that past decade, this has happened so, so, so many more times. This is who we are. There’s no justifying the massacres; there’s only making sense of their consequences, and that’s what movies can do. Even the flawed ones, and this film is among them (the emotional moments are as manipulative as they are tear-jerking; the contrivances feel overly slick at times; pregnant wives at home in fear are cheap methods of developing sympathy; etc.), can contribute to our coming to terms with the violence that mankind can do, and reminding us of the sloppy, complicated shades of grey involved in being human.

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Dragged Across Concrete — 6/10


Zahler’s MO across his first three features is firmly established and reliable: he takes his time establishing character, paints a bleak world of unjust randomness, and watches as the carnage begins. Unfortunately with this one, the returns have diminished a bit — the script is so mannered and obvious that the characters feel more like mouthpieces than ever.

The actors (many very good) still fumble over clunky syntax that would read much better on the page. Conversations feel like reactionary op-eds rather than natural dialogue. And the stabs at colorful character development come across more forced than ever — I’m thinking of Vaughn saying “anchovies” whenever he’d ordinarily curse; Gibson always estimating probabilities as percentages; and the worst offense is a sadistic tangent establishing Carpenter’s brief role as a mother with postpartum depression solely to make sure her peril during the bank robbery carries weight. Do we need to know a woman is a new mother with a baby sock in her pocket to value her life?

Aside from the script’s relative inability to translate smoothly to the screen, Zahler’s other strengths still come through in valuable ways. He makes the political topics thorny. Race is an issue until it isn’t. Dirty cops aren’t easily demonized nor valorized. The jokes land. He even shows restraint with the gore in places his earlier films never did. (Granted, it’s still graphically violent, but I can imagine a much worse cut from the two-years-ago-Zahler of CELL BLOCK). I’m a fan of Zahler’s tone, pace, and world view. If some succeed better than others, that’s okay – as long as a financier is willing to grant him the ability to exhibit a bloody two-plus-hour exploitation drama every couple years, without the interference of a studio or test audiences to water it down.

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Us — 7/10

US (2019, Jordan Peele)

Bang-on entertainment, thanks to Peele’s gift both for writing clever dialogue that manages to inject humor all the way through a harrowing narrative, and for throwing all kinds of wild shit at the screen to keep you on your toes. What he doesn’t quite do here is let all that shit congeal into a streamlined thesis. There’s some major subtext about slavery and the underclass (handcuffs=chains), keeping up with the Joneses bougie satire (“he has a backup generator!”), and of course the overwhelming realization that we’re the bad guys both as a nation (“We’re… AMERICANS!”) and as individuals (the hall of mirrors, the doppelgängers, etc.). But introducing ideas isn’t the same thing as hashing them out, and the movie may be a bit too busy trying to entertain the cheap seats to really nail down the meaning at its core.

I knew we were in for some studio interference right away — the film opens on a slow zoom in on a tube TV (framed by VHS tapes like “The Right Stuff” and “The Man With Two Brains“) showing a commercial for Hands Across America 1986, then cuts to an ad for the Santa Cruz boardwalk. When the screen is dark, we see the reflection of a young black girl watching said TV. In the next shot, that girl is now standing in front of a carnival game while her dad wins her a t-shirt. And what does Universal think we need? A graphic informing us this is Santa Cruz, 1986. No shit? Thanks, that wasn’t clear yet.

Luckily Peele is smarter than the studio, so his movie gets more challenging as it goes along despite the repeated attempts to bring everything to the surface enough to make sure this thing wins the box office (it will). And he’s got another stellar cast running the show — Lupita Nyong’o is unbelievable in a dual role and by far the best thing about the entire endeavor. Winston Duke is no slouch either, and Heidecker and Moss have some fun too. An insistent but effective score works in concert with bold sound design and it all makes sure that the machine runs as a smooth, enjoyable thriller. It’s nice that Peele always has something on his mind. I just wish he’d gone through one more draft to mold it into a real earth-scorcher.

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Ash Is Purest White — 6/10

ASH IS PUREST WHITE (2019, Jia Zhang-ke)

Only the second Jia film I’ve seen, so I can’t speak to this film’s references — oblique and explicit — to such works as UNKNOWN PLEASURES, STILL LIFE, or MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART. But much like the one I am familiar with, A TOUCH OF SIN, it’s a formally confident exploration of Chinese society filtered through specific characters and their artificial dramas. Whereas SIN was ultimately optimistic (though it condemned the nation’s oppressive treatment of laborers, it celebrated its capacity for tradition and creativity), this one feels sadder and more poignant. It’s also less interesting, if only because the idea of “the passage of time” is an element explored on the reg throughout world cinema.

Also, whereas SIN told three different stories, this one stays rooted to Zhao Tao’s magnificent heroine Qiao — and Zhao plays her with sensational force, vulnerability, and often understated boiling emotion. She doesn’t get any huge scenery-chewing awards bait moments, but the cumulative effect of her breaking down throughout decades — while maintaining traditional honor and stubborn loyalty — is the best thing about the film.

If the text is Qiao’s continual sacrifice and graceful aging, the subtext is China itself reckoning with change. Therefore Jia frames dozens of terrific shots with Zhao standing still in front of awesome, dwarfing images of the country: imposing mountains, stone buildings, dark villages, gaping crowds, and a train platform where a car, carrying a life that could have been, chugs further and further away from her. As the narrative lurches from 2001 to 2006 to 2017, we hear of the rising water levels at the Three Gorges Dam, the end of mining towns and expulsion of their work forces, and ultimately we see a doctor attempt to connect with his patient on WeChat (followed by a key character’s exit made through mobile text). But these signposts take up a lot of time that could have been spent on ramping up our interest in Qiao and Bin instead of coasting to an airless final half hour. Perhaps the non-climax is the point, but just because our lives tend to peak early, that doesn’t mean movies have to.

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Triple Frontier — 7/10

TRIPLE FRONTIER (2019, J.C. Chandor)

A red-meat Dad movie engineered for the algorithm that puts this on the front Netflix page for fans of NARCOS and THE HURT LOCKER. Come for the U.S. Special Forces tactical ops, with rifles, headshots, jeeps in mud, foot-chases through Peruvian barrios, and duffel bags full of cash, and stay for the anti-political procedural that barely pays lip service to forgotten former soldiers (the tight shot of a leaky faucet in an un-sold condo in the foreground, with blurry Ben Affleck’s subdued and desperate realtor in the background, says all you need to know) and instead delivers a two-quadrant heist thriller with the chops of John Rambo.

Boal and Chandor’s script dots every i and crosses every t, even going so far as to introduce conflicts that amount to nothing (Affleck’s suspicions of Isaac’s informant), while surprising us with conflicts we didn’t know were coming (why it smells like paint, a ridge too high for mules, etc.). By the time it gets to the chopper ride through the Andes, it has built so much tension that we’re privy to a suspense sequence for the ages — so heart-pounding you almost won’t notice the gorgeous shot of the sunlight bathing our heroes at their most uncertain moment. The lack of real subtext, and the hesitation at making a more profound point to this madness (a charge some levied at Boal’s ZERO DARK THIRTY script as well), keep this 2-hour punch from landing in the stomach, but a fine anchoring performance from Oscar Isaac and intelligently staged combat by Chandor (a chameleon whose MARGIN CALL, ALL IS LOST, and A MOST VIOLENT YEAR all exercise vastly different muscles) make it well worth your while regardless. Just let’s please never speak about Charlie Hunnam’s attempt at an American accent ever again. It must be dropped into a chasm and buried with snow.

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Climax — 6/10

CLIMAX (2019, Gaspar Noé)

If you’ve seen Noé’s I STAND ALONE, you know the ghost of Albert Camus loomed over its amoral story of an alienated French butcher. And the following trilogy of existential hellscapes like IRREVERSIBLE, ENTER THE VOID, and LOVE called to mind Sartre, Heidegger, and everyone in between who contemplated the ontological conundrums of a hostile and indifferent world. Now, with CLIMAX, it’s the ghost of Friedrich Nietzsche who rubber-stamps a boiling nightmare inside a deserted dance academy that might as well be the prison of the mind.

Nietzsche books (along with other existentialist tomes and tapes of movies like TAXI DRIVER and Fulci’s ZOMBIE) adorn the shelf of the unidentified bookcase in the movie’s second sequence, a montage of interviews with our dancers. One of those dancers is a woman who states that her life motto is, to exactly quote Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Cut to the masterful single-take dance sequence that kicks off the Worst Rave Ever, after which the gay black DJ summons his fellow outcasts from all walks of life and says “God is with us.”

But what God? Clearly the answer is Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, religious ecstasy, fertility, and, most importantly, ritual madness. The wine at this party is sangria (the source of the movie’s bizarre whodunit plot: who spiked the sangria with acid?) and the madness comes from its unrestrained consumption. Of course, in Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian, these acts are life-affirming — whether it’s part of the pleasure (we see dancers falling in love, laughing, having sex, expressing the freedom of movement, etc.) or the intense pain (self-flagellation and slicing, the kicking of a pregnant woman, infanticide, incest, and more chaotic horrors too nightmarish to discuss).

The problem here is that this reading, direct and obvious, feels like a college sophomore’s paper on Nietzsche’s Dionysian obsession, and Noé doesn’t really know what to do with it once the entropy begins. He turns his camera upside down and lets the relentless thump of the EDM soundtrack drive a punishingly tedious third act. This is not to say the movie is without its aesthetic merits — a magnificent camera placement on the ceiling looking straight down at a dance circle forms the shape of an eye, with the pupils being soloists taking turns contorting their bodies in gravity-defying beauty. The one sequence with any real editing (where the rest is a series of IRREVERSIBLE-style long-takes, the montage of two-shot conversations is rapid-fire by contrast) borrows the eye-blink black frames from LOVE, creating a separation between the communal joy of the initial dance with the confrontational, violent and torturous back half. By the end, you feel exhausted and spent (a fitting title?) but with little to show for your attention other than a few funny title cards (further shoving Noé’s existentialism down your throat, e.g. “Existence is a fleeting emotion”) and some committed performances. The movie hasn’t left my brain for two days and for that kind of reliable vitality I’ll always cherish Noé, but I wish he had managed to coalesce a concept of a movie birthed by Dionysus into a more three-dimensional thesis.

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2018 Year in Review

The seventh straight Year in Review, and by now I’ve been very consistent in publishing this way too late (always end of January!) with way too few interesting revelations, yet somehow seeming way too self-indulgent nevertheless. But tradition is tradition, even when it’s pathetic, so let’s press on! Once again, note that I saw “only” 83 feature releases in 2018, so these are my favorites among those. Definitely several candidates I didn’t get a chance to see (COLD WAR, LEAVE NO TRACE, ZAMA, etc.) so take this post with that ever-so-clichéd grain of salt.

2018 Top Ten

  1. BLACKKKLANSMAN — Last summer’s fiery, passionate work of art from one of America’s greatest living filmmakers still resonates with me more than anything I saw all year. Spike Lee didn’t just make us laugh, make us think, make us uncomfortable, and challenge our ideas about institutionalized racism, mob mentality, and police brutality — he also crafted a love letter to movies themselves using the tools of the cinema to argue for their power. This is the most pro-aesthetic, confident work of Lee’s career, and one of his five best movies ever.
  2. LEAN ON PETE — A rueful, sparse, earnest work of humanism that mixes the ugly and sad with the beautiful and the sympathetic. No other film of 2018 shredded me like this.
  3. PRIVATE LIFE — The least enticing subject matter possible somehow turned into a showcase for Tamara Jenkins and her cast: this is all-star writing and directing both on a shot-by-shot basis and as a display of tone-control. I know you have Netflix, so what are you waiting for?
  4. BURNING — Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong also put on a directing clinic, but the atmosphere here is unlike anything else you could have seen last year. And part of its charm is that I still can’t quite grasp its ephemeral mysteries that will forever be out of reach.
  5. LET THE CORPSES TAN — The one entry on this list I didn’t publish a blog review for, but it’s the third feature from Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, two of the most stylistic titans of elemental art cinema — just don’t mistake it for style over substance. Their imagery is pregnant with significance, communicating both aesthetic ideas and narrative information. This is a Neo-Spaghetti Western where, as in all their films, texture is king, and few genres are better suited to a bouillabaisse of dirt, blood, bone, meat, fire, rock, leather, metal, and hair. 
  6. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE — Punishing and unforgettable. Joaquin Phoenix is once again electrifying, but it’s Lynne Ramsay’s perfect orchestration that elevates this genre film to dizzying heights.
  7. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK — Gorgeous (maybe too gorgeous), but it’s the romanticism that turns a universally angering experience with American racism into a personally affecting exposé of the devastating casualties of a rotten system.
  8. ANNIHILATION — A bold, go-for-broke sci-fi curiosity that not only has a lot to ponder with regards to the inexorable loss that death and separation cause, but also contains the single most horrifying sequence in recent memory. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t…
  9. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU — Funny, inventive, and clever, this is Boots Riley leaving no ingredient uncooked in a satirical soup that feels like the last meal he’s ever going to eat.
  10. WIDOWS — It took too long to get a new Steve McQueen film, but once we did, it was electrifying. It lives and breathes the city of Chicago, but gives actors room to be sensational and has a lot to say in barely over two hours of can’t-look-away screen time.

Didn’t Quite Make the Cut: Wasn’t able to make room for a surprisingly charming two-hander called DESTINATION WEDDING (giving Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder two of their best roles in years), the gut-wrenching French exploitation thriller REVENGE, Wes Anderson’s crispy-clean ISLE OF DOGS, the underrated A QUIET PLACE, or the Coen Brothers’ THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS.

And now, the requisite awards:

Best Director — Spike Lee, BLACKKKLANSMAN

Best Actor — Charlie Plummer, LEAN ON PETE

Best Actress — Viola Davis, WIDOWS

Best Supporting Actor — Bryan Cranston, ISLE OF DOGS

Best Supporting Actress – Sakura Ando, SHOPLIFTERS

Best Screenplay — BLACKKKLANSMAN (Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee)

As usual, no Worst List, for all the reasons I’ve said over the years. It does feel like this year I was just shrugging at so many films that got huge acclaim — EIGHTH GRADE, SUPPORT THE GIRLS, BLACK PANTHER, A STAR IS BORN, etc. (I gave a 6/10 to all of those). And even MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT, which I think is the weakest of the six entries in my favorite franchise that exists… everyone finally started to click with it and it’s making other lists. I’m just way against the grain all around. And two films I actively hated (THE RIDER, CAM) are also being hailed. So in short, don’t listen to me. Feel free to comment below, and once again thanks for reading.

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If Beale Street Could Talk — 8/10

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018, Barry Jenkins)

Begins with a pregnancy announcement, then proceeds to let the entire movie swell like a kicking womb, life growing inside it until it can barely stand up. James Laxton’s vibrant colors and warm light make the entire thing glow with nearly unmatched romanticism (you could rip off worse people than Wong Kar-wai), and Nicholas Britell’s luscious score peppers falling autumn leaves of violin strings all over its characters. It’s hard to imagine a more human, adoring, soft, organic movie can be made about decades of oppressive, institutionalized racism tearing apart families, ruining lives, and damaging true love.

And sure enough, that social injustice is on Jenkins’s mind (though evidently not as much as Baldwin’s, who focused more heavily on it in his source novel) — his goal is to cultivate sympathy for a couple so likable, a relationship so pure, and a baby so desired, that the threat of losing it all becomes that much more painful. It’s the way Harlem in the ’70s breathes, the way Kiki Layne and Stephan James (two powerhouse performances that come out of nowhere from two unknowns) stare at each other, and the way Fonny’s false imprisonment doesn’t only separate the white authority from the oppressed blacks, but the way it fractures tenuous bonds between Fonny’s family and Tish’s, and between women like Sharon and Victoria. The collateral damage when people get arrested for being black is far-reaching and devastatingly permanent.

At times, Jenkins’s romantic touch pulls you out of the movie and turns the spotlight on the hardworking crew members: there’s the sculpting sequences filled with beautiful smoke; the way that all the costumes — even Fonny’s prison shirt — look like this is the first time they’ve ever been worn, so perfectly clean and new; and an ending that doesn’t grant catharsis — it merely exhales and fades out. But I’ll take a tone that leans in this direction over another “gritty” PSA-style lecture. It’s a joy to watch, even when it’s tough to confront.

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Short Takes — Jan 3, 2019

SHOPLIFTERS (2018, Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Not among the most electrifying Palmes D’Or to come out of Cannes lately, but a sign that Kore-eda is getting away from the insecure, rigid formalism he hid behind in his 30s (though I adore MABOROSI). Now a middle-aged and experienced filmmaker, he’s loosened up and taken the character-first premise of STILL WALKING to a wiser extreme: this one is all observations and moments, quietly building to a forceful message about how you can choose your family, but said family can still contain the dysfunctions and complications of ones you’re born into. It’s a little confused and takes too many whip-saw turns in the last half hour, but the performances are so likable it’s not an easy film to dismiss.

BIRD BOX (2018, Susanne Bier)

Yes, it’s definitely THE HAPPENING meets A QUIET PLACE and fits somewhere between the two in quality. The strangers-locked-in-a-house-or-grocery-store scenario plays better in THE MIST and falls victim here to some thin characterizations and formulaic beats, but Bier’s heart is in Bullock’s Mallory, a reluctant mother with a lot of reservations about how to navigate the apocalypse burdened with too much responsibility. Extra credit for a biracial romance that not only ignores race, but also a marked age difference between them, where for a change it’s the woman who’s older. Unfortunately Bier’s direction falters when it comes to action and suspense, cheating on the visual rules too many times. (e.g. If we’re gonna be stuck in the car only having the parking sensors to tell us what’s near, then please don’t show anything on the outside until we get to the market — every time she cuts away to a body on the ground or a car in the road or a sidewalk or a parking lot, the effect is destroyed).

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Vice — 7/10

VICE (2018, Adam McKay)

Funny and depressing in equal measure, VICE is McKay’s entertaining but less successful follow-up to THE BIG SHORT (and, by extension, THE OTHER GUYS) in his quest to destroy-by-satire the powerful white capitalists eroding the country bit by bit. There’s a healthy amount of Trump rage here too, with Lynne Cheney’s stump speech (while her husband is laid up with his first of five heart attacks) essentially promising to drain the swamp and eliminate the immigrants. (McKay also clumsily cuts in Reagan’s first use of “Make America great again” to make the obvious connection). He keeps the tone caustically funny and ups the ante on the Margot-Robbie-in-the-bathtub style info-dumps, which are hit and miss but almost always viscerally energetic in a way that builds momentum and cooks up fury.

And in the first half, Cheney is developed as a shockingly three-dimensional monster, an oxymoron of a character that has you understanding his humanity while decrying his demonic ascent — and that’s all thanks to Bale’s sensational work. Like Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn before him, Bale’s Cheney is one of those biopic turns that so far exceeds the (albeit incredibly accurate) mimicry that marks a superficial SNL impersonation and turns into a real-live performance of depth, movement, and growth (though in this case rather than a Denzel-in-MALCOLM X self-actualization, his heart literally blackens as he moves further towards rapacious ghoul). Adams does equally astute work as well, further separating Bale and herself from the cosmetic, softball impressions Steve Carell (Rummy) and Sam Rockwell (Dubya) are up to.

In the final third, however, the movie loses steam as its focus gets away from Cheney’s driving motivation (that began when Rumsfeld laughed when he questioned what the party “believes”) and becomes a this-happened-then-this-happened rehashing of the 9/11-WMDs-Iraq-Saddam fiasco of the Bush presidency. McKay is preaching more to the choir than ever in this section, right when we don’t need reminders — we need a narrative. Still, he ends his screed with two uppercuts: a fourth-wall-breaking soliloquy that implicates the audience, then a misanthropic mid-credits assault bluntly separating American masses into two equally reprehensible groups: MAGA-types attacking The Libs, and head-in-the-sand sheep escaping into pop culture dreck. His characterization is simplistic and reductive, but I can’t help but sympathize with his lack of answers or positivity, because when it feels like the bad guys won (or, more accurately, we are the bad guys now), why bother pretending there’s a silver lining?

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The Mule — 7/10

THE MULE (2018, Clint Eastwood)

A fine companion piece to David Lowery’s THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN, Clint Eastwood’s THE MULE is another swan song for an American icon of the ’60s and ’70s, reckoning with a life of chasing a satisfaction just out of reach. (Both films even contain the hero’s love interest laughing when he tells her of his criminal behavior; a HEAT-style scene midway of cop and crook shooting the shit in a diner; and a climactic chase where the law closes down on the hero driving alone in his car through the American heartland).

In Lowery’s film, the themes were concerning the passage of time, aging, and the existentialist concerns of defining one’s identity through action. Eastwood, however, is dwelling on something more socio-political. Ever the Libertarian, Clint has made a paean to the virtues of personal accountability, and centered his own character’s arc around the ultimate acceptance of responsibility. Add to that a series of scenes that underscore the inescapable burden of having to answer to a boss no matter who you are (an informant, a DEA agent, a station chief, a henchman, etc.), and you’ve got a strong argument for Rand Paulism. Earl Stone in this movie is his own man, free from the shackles of big government and big corporations, yet he must still tackle the consequences of a crumbling economy that threaten both his hobby and his family. (Speaking of his family, there’s more than a little autobiography here: casting his daughter as his daughter is one thing, but Clint is a guy with at least 8 kids by 6 women, two of whom were his wives — it’s not surprising to see him open up to Dianne Wiest’s character like this, or to have two separate threesome scenes).

All of that stuff is perfectly fine — agree or disagree with his politics, it’s an argument well explored and intelligently supported; plus, Eastwood is having a blast playing Earl. It’s a real performance, not just an 88 year-old coot shuffling through his dialogue. But the DEA scenes feel far more rote and obligatory — little narrative function is achieved by spending so much time with the pursuit, so we’re left only to contemplate its meaning on a thematic level. Some of the superfluous material serves to explore identity politics — how Earl engages with blacks and Latinos, how police regard Hispanics, and how a Filipino objects to being called a Mexican. And while most of this is on the money, I’m not sure we needed the detour of the Latino motorist pulled over and freaking out about the scenario: it adds nothing to the story and thus feels the most didactic and self-indulgent. However, there’s a key detail that shows the passing of the torch from an elderly white movie star to a young Hispanic role player: throughout his career, Clint was the guy wearing the cowboy hat. In this scene, it’s that motorist, and it’s “statistically the five most dangerous minutes” of his life.

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The Favourite — 7/10

THE FAVOURITE (2018, Yorgos Lanthimos)

Fast-paced, scabrous, and devilishly irreverent, this is not the stuffy Anglophilic period piece you expect to see around Oscar-bait time. It’s an acidic sour candy you suck on for two hours then feel a little lacking in nutrients. Not to say Lanthimos’s hired-gun follow-up to the more personally substantial THE LOBSTER and KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (his breakthrough features following smaller Greek efforts like DOGTOOTH and ALPS) isn’t rich in quality — it has all-star skill to spare in every department from production design and cinematography to the stellar cast — but the only drawback is that when it’s over, you feel like it’s over. None of the noise echoes past the two hours you spend in its spell.

But oh, that cast. Emma Stone plays against type deliciously, at first earning your sympathies, then mocking your naiveté. Olivia Colman is fierce from the opening shot, where she stands firm and regal until the crown is removed from her head, at which point she almost collapses from the literal and metaphorical weight removed. And Nicholas Hoult – unrecognizable from his days as the adorable moppet from ABOUT A BOY (or even the wan sex object from A SINGLE MAN) – is having a blast as an obnoxious, sneering Jared Kushner-type. 

What develops in this darkly comedic retelling of Queen Anne’s real-life relationships with Lady Sarah Marlborough and Abigail is a caustic reminder that in governments structured around dictatorships or aristocracies, everything from taxes to wars can be decided upon (and inflicted upon the masses) based on the whims of a jealous lover or a betrayed, scorned victim. The things that make humans malicious actors, beholden to the vagaries of revenge, love, and greed, are the same things that can make or ruin a country. 

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Roma — 7/10

ROMA (2018, Alfonso Cuarón)

A loose, haphazard, listless collection of snapshots scattered on a floor, ROMA slowly gathers them together and pins them to a cork board labeled Slice of Life. As each ambling moment is shakily linked to the next, the overall story steadily builds up some steam, and things cohere fairly nicely down the stretch — but coherence does not equal emotional force, and you may end up a little unmoved by the results.

Plenty of sequences stand out on their own — the most memorable being the hospital delivery room and the beach rescue — but others come across like forced poetry: Cuarón imagining the lyrical power an image may have and thrusting it upon the audience without any dynamic storytelling leading you there. Here’s a shot of a baby in ICU with earthquake debris perilously atop its enclosure. Here’s a political uprising causing a riot outside a furniture store where two characters are shopping for a crib. He’s a master filmmaker with an uncommon gift for being able to tell a story without dialogue, so there’s plenty of great wordless exposition and character development (Fermín going back to drink the last of Cleo’s Coke, but not take the money she left on the counter; the ordeal of parking the Galaxy in its narrow driveway, etc.). But there’s also the sense that there are a lot of ideas here for a patchwork quilt of a movie that doesn’t have the focus of something like A LITTLE PRINCESS or Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN.

Aside from his one hired-gun franchise movie (he did Harry Potter 3 or something), this is the first Cuarón feature not to employ the DP work of Emmanuel Lubezki. Perhaps that’s why the camerawork here — while gorgeous at times — leans a little too much on the crutch of the oscillating fan technique, covering most scenes in one shot and slowly panning back and forth to pick up action. But it’s going to be hard for any movie to top the dolly across the sand with the sun backlighting Cleo, or the opening shot of a tile floor splashed with soapy water, revealing a reflection of the sky above (note how often he uses reflection: dirty water, a waxed tabletop, you name it he’ll find a surface that can reflect a world outside the reach of its heroine). And in Cleo (and huge credit to rookie Yalitza Aparicio for a warm, understated performance of wisdom and tenderness), Cuarón has presented us a character through which to view a world that is harsh, indifferent, dangerous, and vast, but can somehow find a way to reflect back to us the model of giving, guileless, motherly affection. 

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs — 7/10

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018, Joel & Ethan Coen)

Fully into their 60s, it’s fair to call the Coen Brothers old, or at least in their late period. And this is the first of their work to feel like an elder’s patient parable. No longer curious or experimenting, it feels like they’re wrapping it up, having solidified a world view and are ironing out the wrinkles as they plow forward in what may be the last decade of their remarkable output. They’ve never done an anthology of disconnected stories, though, so it’s a departure without feeling like a voice from anyone else. I’m sure future viewings (as they always do with the Coens) will unpack more delightful details, but as it stands this really is no more than the sum of its parts — so I might as well break it down and discuss it chapter by chapter… (some spoilers follow, so don’t read this if you want to go in blind)

Chapter 1: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Could have begun and ended everything, as it serves as both a summary and a culmination of Coen philosophy. Nelson is a conduit for the Coens answering their critics who call them misanthropes — they don’t hate people, as Nelson explains, they find all their immoral and incompetent behavior merely an expression of being human. In other words, it isn’t people that they hate: it’s the human condition itself. Watch any of their works from BLOOD SIMPLE to FARGO to THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE to INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS and you’ll see that attitude expressed in many beautiful and hilarious ways. (It’s notable here that during Nelson’s crowd-rallying, bar-top musical number, the Coens cut back several times to the grieving brother of Curly Joe and the gruesome sight of Joe’s corpse; it is not funny or joyous). Furthermore, this piece says that every good artist (gunslinger) reaches the end of their rope, as a better (faster) one will always come along. And they’ll take on your name, too. So your identity is tied to what you do, not who you are. 

Chapter 2: Near Algodones 

A bit of a rehash of Coen plots from yesteryear, notably MILLER’S CROSSING and THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, which both involve a protagonist exonerated (or gone unpunished) for something he did, but held accountable for something he didn’t. Justice in the world of the Coens is never fair; these are just things that happen. Despite the well-worn territory, this gives Franco a chance at the perfect line-reading of the best joke in the story: “First time?” Lest the story pass without a dark, cynical twist, however, we get two needles: one is that the hood goes on a split second too late (so Franco’s final image of the girl is of her scowl, not her smile), and second is the cheering of the crowd. Never underestimate an audience’s bloodthirstiness. Is that why we’ve been treated to so much gory violence in this movie?

Chapter 3: Meal Ticket

Perhaps the bleakest segment, it’s another allegory for the film industry — Neeson is a studio exec, and when one high-brow act begins to lose its audience, he swiftly hitches himself to a low-brow one. What’s the villain in this downward slide towards idiocracy? It could be the insipid whims of the drooling (paying) masses; the greed and carelessness of the producer; the disposable value of performance; or the idea itself of the unholy destructive union of art and commerce. The kicker: we don’t even know if the chicken is going to perform. 

Chapter 4: All Gold Canyon

A bit of an outlier in this anthology; there’s no audience component like the first three, nor any moments of levity. It’s a quiet, contemplative tale demonstrating the best that Delbonnel has to offer as a DP (when the Coens can’t have Deakins, their backup is pretty strong). Humans pierce a serene piece of nature, bringing violence into a peaceful meadow, prizing only greed and selfishness. But the omnipresence of the owl reminds us that humans are just one living species on a planet that will survive everything and nothing. 

Chapter 5: The Gal Who Got Rattled

The longest chapter by far, but one that feels mostly like misdirection. What feels like a love story is really just an excuse for one of the leads to be a red herring. One could draw a parallel between the self-destructive, tragic ending and modern-day gun violence in America, but that seems a little glib for what is a more lyrical, poetic short film. The dialogue is sharp, period-specific, and beautifully mature, which contrasts with the harsh realities of a wagon train lifestyle. And however much or little you’re affected by the narrative, it’s hard to deny the excellence of the two performances: Kazan reaches back to her MEEK’S CUTOFF days to do some career-best work, and the much-less-well-known Bill Heck is a reserved, steady treat. 

Chapter 6: The Mortal Remains

A bit of a sour way to end the proceedings; it’s almost the opposite of Chapter 5 in that it’s all metaphor with little specificity. Furthermore, the execution is, in a rare misstep for the Coens, lacking — the dialogue feels dulled and patchy, and the performances almost all misjudged. It’s all about storytelling, and how stories (movies?) can distract us in the brief moments we have while we’re alive. Sometimes they entertain, sometimes they bore, and sometimes they enlighten or make us weep. That’s all fine, but couched in this lugubrious coach ride which might as well be across The River Styx, it all feels preachy and not particularly unique. 

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Widows — 8/10

WIDOWS (2018, Steve McQueen)

Every bit the stern, straight-faced visual artist he’s been since before he became a film director, McQueen is the cool, slick ice cube inside a rye old-fashioned heist picture. He even makes sure to turn his villains into philistines. When Manning strolls through a house he points at a random book on a shelf: “I haven’t read that.” Mulligan Sr. calls Jr.’s painting “$50,000 wallpaper.” “It’s art.” “Wallpaper.” And in the movie’s second-best oner (I’ll get to the first in a moment), Daniel Kaluuya’s terrifying hitman asks two victims to start rapping — then McQueen’s camera takes the POV of a spot on a spinning record, as we whirl steadily around in a circle to listen to the raps (a location and image reminiscent of McQueen’s bravura video for Kanye’s “All Day”), before Kaluuya suddenly scratches the record and the camera stops for a bullet to the brain.

Villains equaling philistines is just one of the pet themes McQueen squeezes out of the pulp storyline. He’s also got his mind on class, race, and gender. As for the class, the best oner in the movie follows Colin Farrell’s Mulligan Jr. into his car but the camera stays latched to the hood, as we watch the neighborhood change during the travels from the 18th Ward campaign stop (surrounded by projects) to Mulligan’s beautiful upper class block filled with large, well-kept houses. For comparison, note how terribly Tom McCarthy flubbed this concept in SPOTLIGHT, and how perfectly McQueen executes it here. 

Race only became a major theme of McQueen’s since 12 YEARS A SLAVE, but here he weaves it into the fabric of modern Chicago; a tragic backstory for the Rawlings tells a too-familiar tale of white cops and law-abiding black citizens (and it serves a narrative purpose too — it explains why Veronica won’t go to the cops when Manning threatens her). The Mulligans are so casually bigoted that they don’t even notice the offense taken by their own black driver or constituents. And while the gender issues are more obvious, it’s great to see how Cynthia Erivo’s Belle uses her athletic skills (she learned to run by having to race to catch the bus) as a tool to help scout the Mulligan house and eventually pull off the heist. 

Hardly a shot or detail goes wasted in this well-oiled piston — even the cute voice-masking toys used by the little kids in act 2 play a key role in the act 3 heist. That doesn’t mean it all works, though: Michelle Rodriguez’s limited talents are acted off the screen by the towering work of Davis, Erivo, and Debicki. Debicki’s relationship with Lukas Haas’s David feels like a story that could have been its own movie (if Gillian Flynn really wanted to flesh it out) or part of Carey Mulligan’s arc in SHAME. But here it’s almost a blister on the skin. Still, this is the rare studio entertainment to drive right up the middle with fierce, grave, devastating weight to it and a gorgeous eye to guide it home. 

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Burning — 8/10

BURNING (2018, Lee Chang-dong)

Character defined by blocking as opposed to action; Jongsu is often alone in the frame when he’s in a scene with Ben and Haemi. Or he’s trapped in a window frame, a doorway, or a stable. Ben is always in smooth motion, always smiling, and connected to Haemi or his attractive possessions (car, clothes, etc.). Is there a difference?

For her part, Haemi is a beautifully, subtly realized character who avoids all the pitfalls of a potential manic pixie dream girl. She’s always revealing her own depressive insecurities — talks herself into a sobbing wreck detailing how she wants to disappear (which serves as both a premonition and a confession); not to mention she lives in a cramped studio apartment that only gets sunlight once a day. “You have to get lucky to see it.”

Identity is something to aspire for, not to claim: “I’m not a writer, I’m just trying to write.” “Do you want to be an actress?” “Do you know how hard that is?” “What do you do?” “This and that. I play.”

All of this existentialist hand-wringing pays off when the thriller elements boil into focus, and Jongsu does start to take action. And in a late shot that recalls the final image of Mike Leigh’s NAKED, he drives further and further away from a burning flame, but it’s visible through the window no matter how far he gets. Formally confident and audacious, aesthetically gripping, this is one of the best films of the year.

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Halloween — 7/10

HALLOWEEN (2018, David Gordon Green)

Trying to recapture the note-perfect magic of John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece is a fool’s errand, as all of its pathetic sequels and reboots have proven over the years. That film was a one-of-a-kind shooting star — it used its micro-budget in its favor, it had the great fortune of boasting a director who was also a maestro musical composer, and it was the first and most original entry in a genre that hasn’t quit for 40 years. Anything that apes it comes off like a faded carbon copy. So why does Green’s sequel work so well? Because it’s the first movie in the franchise to be *about* something.

Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t work that well. As a shock machine it leaves a lot to be desired (there were better jump-scares in the trailers before the movie started), and aside from Curtis it won’t sniff at any acting awards. But Green’s heart is in a different place — rather than trying to one-up the sheer evil of the original, Green has made a movie that contemplates the cycle of violence, and the contagious effect that evil has both throughout space and down generations.

The three Strode women begin the movie as fractured as they could possibly be (granddaughter isn’t forthcoming to mom, and mom lies to granddaughter and totally dismisses/shuts out grandma Laurie), but end as bonded as you’ll ever see — side by side by side, as Green’s camera drifts from Laurie to Karen to Allyson, then down to the butcher knife in Allyson’s hand. Freeze frame, I got it, I’m gone.

They’re drawn to each other by force and subconscious, and the only thing different is how time has turned the victim into the stalker. One brilliant moment echoes the scene in Carpenter’s original where Laurie is in the corner desk at school looking out at Michael creeping on her through the window. Now it’s Laurie’s granddaughter in the exact same seat, but it’s Laurie doing the stalking. In 1978 it was Michael who fell to the front lawn from the second story and got up; in 2018 it’s Laurie. These evils leave their mark. We do not emerge from trauma unscathed.

Even Michael himself bleeds evil to anyone who crosses his path — he whips his fellow inmates into a frenzy in the opening sequence, and what he does to the doctor who devotes his life to studying Michael and Loomis is tragic. Why does Haddonfield care so much about some dude who killed a few babysitters 40 years ago, someone asks? Because this story gets at who we are as imprinted psyches — causes have effects, and you don’t just get to wipe the slate clean.

Other qualities of note: Danny McBride as co-writer makes his mark in some obvious ways, most notably the Bahn Mi scene. And perhaps he wrote Drew Scheid’s character Oscar, who is funny until he isn’t, and credit to Scheid for screaming so raw and terrified that for the first time in any of these movies I really felt like I was listening to a teenage boy scared for his life. The updated score is used judiciously, and while no Dean Cundey, Michael Simmonds moves his camera with the unhurried but relentless drive of Michael Myers. This movie did not need to be made, and parts of it do feel like a studio-mandated cash grab. But as a pulsating organism exhibiting the deteriorating consequences of violence cycles, and of mass killings in general, it pierces the skin and draws blood.


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Suspiria — 6/10

SUSPIRIA (2018, Luca Guadagnino)

On paper, it shouldn’t work — remaking the (arguably) giallo classic by adapting the story but leaving behind everything that made the original distinct: Argento’s one-of-a-kind gonzo visual style and its fantastic Goblin score. Why do this again if you’re only taking the one thing nobody much liked — the narrative? But as it turns out, Guadagnino and his BIGGER SPLASH writer David Kajganich haven’t even taken the narrative, either. They’ve given us a more expansive, creepy epic that turns out to be as stealthily Jewish as CALL ME BY YOUR NAME was.

The fact that this leans on Holocaust drama the deeper it goes is just one of the ways in which the remake has departed from the original text. While we still have Susie the American student joining the ballet company, and characters like Patricia, Olga, Sara, Tanner, Blanc, and Markos remain, everyone’s position has been remixed to further some sort of examination of fascism, guilt, and delusion. At one point Josef* tells his patient that “delusion is lies that tell the truth,” and you can’t help but wonder if Guadagnino feels the same about film — is it fiction that tells the truth? If so, truth about what? The ideas here are large: personal responsibility, power struggles among organizations, artistic interpretation, and complicity with regard to inaction in the face of terrifying institutionalized violence. (It’s telling that we see Blanc’s failure to protect Markos just after we learn about Josef’s failure to protect Anke).

But those ideas are all crammed into a whiplash soup of cinematic flourishes — Walter Fasano’s editing uses too much coverage to stab a lot of cuts into dialogue scenes, hyper-alienating the viewer, while Guadagnino constantly directs our eyes to mirrors and reflections (in one insane location, he manages to completely remove a swirling camera from the mirrors in front of which the characters are standing; that must have been a post-production nightmare)… dream sequences are self-consciously arty but also quite weird and unique. When it turns into an all-out gore-fest at the end, it’s hard to care about anything going on because of how insane it all is presented — and for a movie that spends a lot of exposition time asking us to care about the narrative, that’s a problem. There’s a lot to unpack in this, a lot of sequences to admire and issues to contemplate, but it’s so studied and full of effort that I wasn’t able to connect viscerally to it. Perhaps a second viewing would do the trick, that is if I can muster the courage for it.


  • Note: I didn’t realize who was playing Josef until I looked it up on IMDb afterwards. If you’re reading this before seeing the movie, I’d recommend not looking up who plays Josef to protect the integrity of that performance. 

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Bad Times at the El Royale — 6/10

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018, Drew Goddard)

Plays like a demo-version B-side of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS — it has the same voyeuristic puppeteering, the things-are-not-what-they-seem artifice, deconstruction of a theatrical genre, and apocalyptic finale with moralizing overtones — but despite some dazzling set pieces and visuals, it falls a little limp overall.

The questions posed by CABIN’s weird, twisty premise were answered in hilarious, shocking ways — and those answers provided a commentary on horror films at large. The questions posed here aren’t even answered much at all, and don’t end up having anything to say about post-Tarantino noir (which isn’t even much of a genre to deconstruct). There are two McGuffins: a bag of money and an incriminating film reel, but they don’t serve to underscore the rot of the characters. In fact, the specter of Watergate, Vietnam, JFK’s assassination (?), sexual assault, and racism all drape over this plot, but they are just window dressing for a pseudo-HATEFUL EIGHT third act that culminates in a religious scene lacking any emotional resonance.

Before that deflated conclusion, though, there’s a lot to enjoy here: Jon Hamm hams it up with a terrible southern accent (an issue quickly resolved one scene later) and even plays on his MAD MEN persona… a pre-credit prologue with Nick Offerman teaches the audience that they’re essentially watching a stage play on a fake set… a star-making out-of-nowhere lead performance from Cynthia Erivo makes you eager to see what she does in Steve McQueen’s forthcoming WIDOWS… Seamus McGarvey’s exacting compositions behind the camera continue to prove that the DP of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, ATONEMENT, and WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is one of the most underrated in the business (not to mention keen on 35mm!)… the heavy dose of Phil Spector hits on the soundtrack both place the film in a distinct era and lend it a populist but sinister character… and Chris Hemsworth has the misfortune of being cast in the film’s worst role (a cult leader with a pedestrian weakness and nothing clever to do or say) but relishes the physical needs of the performance and manages to acquit himself wonderfully.

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A Star Is Born — 6/10

A STAR IS BORN (2018, Bradley Cooper)

Just as Cooper pitches his voice down an octave to play Jackson Maine (and it’s about three octaves south of Rocket Raccoon), this iteration of the timeless tragic love story about fame and alcoholism is pitched at a lower level of melodrama. Where the Cukor version was full of big-show 1950s manipulations, this one is marked by an element of restraint and “cool,” despite its maudlin DNA and big-ballad sap. For that, it’s an easy sit: surface-level pleasurable, not annoying, and likable in a shaggy-dog way — all qualities you could also apply to Cooper himself in this movie. As both an actor and a director, he has made a cheap-seats belter; a massive crowd-pleaser that is guaranteed to make huge amounts of money, and is such a surefire lock for Best Picture that even the wrong envelopes will contain its title as well.

But as every mom in the building exits their matinee screenings into blasting sunlight, wiping buckets of tears off their faces, it’s hard to shake the ultimate skimpiness of this product. Sure, it provides a hit soundtrack with a few solid gold songs, a breakthrough performance of unimpeachable quality from Lady Gaga (I can’t see how the seasoned, decades-trained actresses who lose to this relative rookie in February can complain too much), and fierce supporting work from Sam Elliott (his red-eyed face as he backs up his car away from Jackson is the most affecting shot in the movie), but is it really saying anything at all?

First of all, the alcoholism storyline, omnipresent in all the versions, I imagine (I haven’t seen most of them), is both clichéd and muddled. Is it all on Jack, as his brother argues? Or is it Not His Fault, It’s The Disease, as his wife does? Either way, as long as Cooper looks cool both in his sweaty cowboy hat holding a glass of gin or on stage with a guitar, it’s all good, right? Also, if the movie is a condemnation of fame both as a weapon of separation (the bullshit British manager character, totally false and one-dimensional) and a corrupt enemy of art (Ally’s sellout pop hits and SNL performance), then why am I watching two characters who don’t even contemplate that issue, or question why they’re so eager to be famous? Ally isn’t at her happiest when she’s with Jack; it’s when she’s showered with Grammys (barely an award, but apparently the be-all-end-all of artistic recognition) and watching her own face projected to an amphitheater of adoring fans.

Gaga herself likes to investigate the concept of fame as a two-headed beast — her first two albums were The Fame and The Fame Monster, and two of her biggest hits are “Paparazzi” and “Applause” — but the script here doesn’t allow for such introspection. It just shovels in a few platitudes about “telling your truth out there” and being who you are, or whatever, and that’s all anyone in 2018 wants to hear. This is the 5th cinematic telling of this story, but it’s very much about 2018: in an era of both social media likes/follows and of hit TV shows like The Voice, American Idol, and America’s Got Talent, it’s never been a surer bet to release a slick Hollywood sugar-bomb giving every shower-singer and YouTuber with an Instagram page some hope that maybe she too will be able to get on stage and make everyone shut up and pay attention to her voice and one-of-a-kind songwriting chops. If everyone is a star just waiting to be discovered, then who’s left to buy a ticket to the show?

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